While most IT professionals have known for decades that hands-on experience counts the most when graduates head into the working world, educators are finding it difficult to balance the demands of recruitment with the old-guard ideals of providing ample theoretical training.

Things are decidedly

moving toward the practical at George Brown College in Toronto. The school recently implemented Sangoma Technologies’ WAN EduKit, which allows students to study broadband technologies in a real-world setting.

“”Everybody involved in this learning process, from the ministry to college management to students to teachers, is pushing for hands-on experience,”” says Gerry Drappel, chair of the information technology department at George Brown College in Toronto.

“”The problem with broadband technologies is that it’s very difficult to (make them) available in a lab environment,”” says Khalid Danok, a professor at George Brown. With the EduKit, however, students are able to simulate the workings of a WAN via a simple PCI card that works on an individual computer.

“”We provide a self-contained WAN and we provide some lovely graphical interfaces which allow the students to actually see the traffic running on these lines,”” says Gideon Hacke, vice-president and CTO of Sangoma.

Being able to view the ins-and-outs of ATM, Frame Relay, and X.25 is a relatively new perk for students, who mostly lack the ability to get a peek at WAN traffic during their education.

If a school had a T1 connection coming in through a high-speed Frame Relay line, for example, it could ask the network administrator to hook up expensive datascopes to look at the data, Hacke says. But very often the administrator would not like classes fiddling with the line, he says.

Drappel says that simulators such as the WAN EduKit, as well as increased lab hours for students, are all part of sending his school’s students out the door with more practical

experience than they might have had in the past.

Stephen Mill, Toronto regional manager for recruiter Robert Half Technology, finds a potential hire’s practical experience almost always outweighs his or her classroom experience.

“”It’s always skill-driven in IT,”” says Mill. “”If someone has a (computer science) background, that’s great. They will have way more in-depth knowledge than someone who doesn’t have that. But if they’ve never done anything practical with that, or relevant, or current, it doesn’t matter.””

Mill points out that IT education is always at a slight disadvantage in terms of keeping current with tech trends: multi-year programs invariably set students behind the curve.

Educating at the speed of light

Education is “”never fast enough,”” says Mill. “”It doesn’t mirror technology. So, by the time something hits many educational institutions, it’s not as in-demand as it was before, because curriculum takes time to develop. By the time it hits Joe Blow’s technology institute, it’s not as relevant. And that’s not a slight on those particular facilities, it’s just reality.””

While colleges are trying to keep in step with industry, universities are finding themselves in a different sort of predicament. Queen’s University assistant professor of management information systems Kathryn Brohman says at her school, theory remains the order of the day, despite trends at other Canadian colleges and American universities.

“”I think it’s a challenge here in Canada because the university systems are very different. And it comes down to the age old argument of ‘Is this a business school a practitioner school, or are we more of a true philosophical discipline where we should be evaluated more like the true sciences?'”” says Brohman.

Though Queen’s recently joined NCR’s Teradata University Network, an international learning portal that allows students hands-on access to valuable resources in the fields of data warehousing and database administration, Brohman thinks that it won’t find as much use at Queen’s as it might at more technical schools.

“”There’s a more fuzzy line in the university system between hands-on training and college-level training,”” says Brohman. “”If it’s going to be hands-on, a lot of those skills should be able to be offered in outside seminars. There’s not a lot of place for that in university education, especially in a business school — we’re teaching a more conceptual understanding of MIS in business. But recruiters are wanting that more technical student for MIS jobs.””

Brohman says there is a fundamental disconnect between what schools are trying to achieve in academia, their whole pedagogical vision, and what recruiters are looking for.

“”I always come down to the same thing: how can you be strategic about finance and strategic about marketing if you don’t know the tools that you’re dealing with? If you don’t know how a database is structured, how could you use that tool strategically?”” she says.

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